Four performances, four protests. Our numbers ranged from three at one show to as many as 10 at another. The Carson & Barnes circus arrived in Missoula, MT for shows on July 9th and 10th, and no show went without protest.
You might know C&B from the eye-witness account of one ex-employee. Or perhaps from the widely-circulated, much-condemned elephant training video (“Make ’em scream!”). The footage includes a sadistic training session, caged bears neurotically pacing and bobbing, and an elephant getting her hair burned off with a blow torch. Apparently this was filmed before the waxing craze. One can only surmise that their hair, which is supposed to grow on their bodies, somehow interferes with the performance. Perhaps it’s just too scratchy for the pretty circus lady who clambers up on Jumbo! The C&B Elephant Care page says hair is “often…removed with clippers; this helps to prevent parasites from growing on their skin.” Wild elephants, who don’t shave, wax, clip, or torch, wallow in mud and dirt to protect their skin.
Elephants are covered with a stiff bristly hair, too tough for razors. Circus elephants are given haircuts ever so delicately, with a blowtorch, and they seem to love it. Their hide is tough and thick, varying from three-quarters of an inch to three inches, but it is extremely sensitive. They can feel mosquitoes landing on them, and a hard slap or blow from the handle of an elephant hook by a trainer is most certainly painful. ~from The Circus in America: 1793-1940
They feel mosquitoes landing but love the blowtorch? You’ll find a more authoritative view of elephant skin at the Elephant Information Repository. Their skin, it states, is “… not particularly thick, except over the back and sides where it can be 2-3 cm thick.” Not being much of a metrics wiz, I had to grab a ruler and check that out: 2 cm is a little under an inch; 3 cm is a little over. But that’s just on the back and sides. Where you see the prods and bullhooks in use, the skin is much thinner and subject to pain and injury.
But let’s return to the idea that “they seem to love” the blowtorch. As we stood with our protest signs outside the entrance gate prior to the 5 p.m. show, a carload of attendees from the 2 p.m. spectacle left the fairgrounds. The driver, a young woman, rolled down her window to tell us, “The animals seemed truly happy!” Funny, innit? how our species has a propensity to justify–based on nothing (on what seems to be)–what we want to believe, to the point of delusion. The zoo animals seem so happy–they don’t have any worries! Bet you’ve heard that one, too.
One woman dismissively flicked her cigarette ash toward us as she drove in; one man told us to “grow up” (we spanned three generations!), and another angrily asked, “Don’t you have anything better to do?” “No,” we responded. “Don’t you?”
Many looked straight ahead without acknowledging our presence. Others read the signs, then showed an annoyed or amused and sometimes bemused face. All but one group went in. I wonder if, when the animal acts were rolled out, the slightest bit of doubt crept in to deliver small jabs and prods at their conscience. Let’s hope so.
But did we make a difference? Yes! One family, kids in tow, turned around at the gate upon learning that the circus featured exploited animals. They just couldn’t support that. “We’ll find something else to do,” they said. “Maybe we’ll go to a movie.”
Here’s a hearty thank you to those parents for the lesson in compassion and justice they taught their children that day. And here’s another for anyone who has ever held a sign, written a letter, or spoken up in peaceful protest of the oppression and exploitation of another–of any species. “Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter,” said Dr. King.
Animals’ lives–their suffering and exploitation–are among the “things that matter.”